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Friday, Feb. 24, 2006

Fighting it out on the big screen


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Paul Haggis
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

A lot of things can be said about the United States, but one thing that can be said with certainty is that it's a society with hair-trigger tempers.

News photo
Sandy Newton and Matt Dillon in "Crash"

Things like just crossing the street can turn into instant peril, when some short-fuse runs a red light, screeches his brakes and yells at you, innocent pedestrian, "Get the hell out of my way, you f***ing faggot, before I kick your ass!"

In my own experience, this sort of thing happened on a depressingly regular basis. Sometimes the irony was bewildering: One week I'd be getting my head knocked up on a bus, defending a couple of African-American girls who were being threatened by some racist nutcase; months later I'd have some tweaked-out crazy throwing a Big Gulp Coke over me for being white in a black neighborhood.

That's the kind of congitive dissonance director/screenwriter Paul Haggis seems to groove on, and he's made an entire film, "Crash," devoted to almost nothing but. He gives us characters who, one and all, black and white, veer between cheap racial scapegoating and their better instincts. It's a highly manipulative film -- worthy of de Sade in the way no virtue goes unpunished -- that desires to show how our racial (racist?) assumptions are so often wrong.

Or right. "Crash" aims for a perfectly "gray" morality, where there is no black and white, where every sinner's a saint and vice versa. Haggis' balance of moral imperfection is almost too neat but, if you can excuse the contrivances, "Crash" is a powerfully tragic film.

Haggis -- a screenwriter (he penned "Million Dollar Baby") turned director -- has obviously seen the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros," "21 Grams"). Just like those two films, Haggis uses an auto accident as the point of intersection for a number of disparate stories. Where Robert Altman's revered "Short Cuts" looked at a wide swath of Los Angelenos to discover the shared dysfunctional funk in their love lives, "Crash" takes a similar hypertext approach with regards to racial attitudes.

LAPD detective Graham (Don Cheadle) and his partner, Ria (Jennifer Espasito), are hit by another car while on their way to a roadside crime scene. The Korean woman who hit them, Kim Lee (Alexis Rhee), loses her cool, and soon Ria is in her face, telling her to use her "blakes."

In another part of town, an Iranian immigrant, Farhad (Shaun Toub), tries to buy a handgun for self-protection. The gun-store owner gets testy with him, saying "Yo, Osama: go plan the jihad on your own time." Tempers flare.

Next we see two young black men, Anthony and Peter (Ludacris Bridges and Larenz Tate), complain about being treated diffidently in an upscale white part of Los Angeles. Of course, being carjackers, their complaints seem a bit much -- soon they jack an SUV occupied by district attorney Rick (Brendan Fraser) and his wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock), both white. Jean is furious later; she had a bad feeling, but ignored it, thinking "If a white woman sees two black men walk towards her and she walks the other way, she's a racist." Rick is only worried about his constituency: "Why did these guys have to be black?" he whines. "I'm gonna either lose the black vote or the law and order vote!"

Jean takes her anger out on the young locksmith changing the locks on her home, Daniel (Michael Pena), because he's Mexican and has tattoos. Daniel takes more grief later from Farhad while changing the locks on his shop. Then he goes home, where he has to comfort his young daughter who's been frightened ever since a stray bullet came through her window.

Meanwhile, white LAPD officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) has a frustrating encounter with a black woman at his medical insurer and takes out his anger by pulling over the first black motorists he can find. While his partner, Thomas (Ryan Phillippe), looks on fuming, Ryan harasses TV producer Cameron (Terence Howard) and his girlfriend, Christine (Thandie Newton).

That's a lot of plot to work with, and at under two hours, some actors get to shine more than others. Cheadle and Dillon get ample screen-time and face the most excruciating decisions. Their performances walk a fine line between sympathetic and repellent, and they manage to embody the film's idea that on any given day a person can be a hero or a jerk, that we all struggle to overcome our prejudices.

Other actors, however, seem more like dead weight: Sandra Bullock's character never gets anything more to do than act like a pampered rich bitch. Ludacris' self-righteous robber, meanwhile, has a 24-hour odyssey that beggars belief.

While many have rightly compared "Crash" to "Short Cuts," an even more apt comparison is "Magnolia" because this film builds to an almost operatic intensity of despair, and as the camera moves from character to character, each lost in their own pain and sadness, the music -- a wonderful, electronic and vocal-based score by Mark Isham -- rises and takes over. The tragedies peak, and redemption is offered for some, but not all; Haggis is smart enough to allow a bittersweet finale. Not all the incredibly ironic twists of fate ring true, but enough of them do. The scenes where Dillon's LAPD officer has to rescue a woman from a burning car, or where Farhad confronts Daniel with a gun as his daughter looks on screaming, will haunt you all year.

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